[The following is essentially a bitch session about hipsters and blogs, specifically Jason Kottke, that morphs into a rant about the essentially substance-free quality of so many popular online destinations. It was written in February 2006, on the day Kottke quit his 'blogging as a full-time concern' experiment. I shelved it thinking it was too bitchy and sour-grapesy for the blog; however, since I think it's merely correct about Kottke and the 'A-list' blogosphere, it's posted here for your not-so-much-delectation. If you don't care about blogs per se, don't bother reading it.]
Jason Kottke is a well-off hipster who's engaged (married?) to a rich hipster (Meg Hourihan, Pyra co-founder, who's more interesting than Jason but whose blog is not). He blogs, but has little enough of interest to say, his site serving mainly as an annotated links repository; it is extremely elegant in appearance, an elegance that has obviously occupied more of his time than his prose. I read kottke.org daily, though I couldn't tell you why. It's gotten a lot less interesting in the year-plus I've been reading; he's posted about his posting scheme, which is that he 'cheats' a regular schedule by scheduling one-line links posts hours in advance, meaning he doesn't actually have to be collecting the 'best of the web' to post about it. (Meaning he's like a slow MetaFilter, as the snarklings on MeFi love pointing out.)
A year ago he announced that he'd quit his day job doing web design (at which I estimate he was making ~$100K) and was going to do kottke.org as his 'full-time concern' - which turned out to be bullshit, of course, but we'll get to that. Today he quit. He also revealed that 'micropatrons' paid him $39,900 in the last year, the vast majority of it in the three weeks immediately following his initial appeal for funds. Meaning he probably made $30K+ in three weeks, calculated how much effort it would take to write a 250-word blog post once a week, then spent the rest of the year...
...basically doing not much at all. Near as I can tell, he read a number of pop sociology and cultural criticism books (he's a big Malcolm Gladwell fan), played some video games, spent a lot of time traveling with Meg (and saying very little about it), got invited to give talks to other hipsters, and that's about it. I mean a lot of travel, just so we're clear.
The experiment is interesting for two reasons:
- It was an attempt to operate a personal website as a primary concern solely on donations, and could potentially be inspiring.
- It was essentially no different from your average scam website; Kottke offers no content, only personality, and then only a generic variant thereof. His movie and book reviews are wastes of time; his links are good but you can get all of them from a half-dozen websites. This is what passes for a business model in Web 2.0-land. As such, it's hard to feel particularly good about him, and rubbernecking/anger are very enjoyable pursuits. I mean, look at his archives: they look impressively packed with small-to-medium entries, until you look at the dates: he averaged less than one substantive post a day, only a few weeks after his fundraising drive.
I didn't donate; I'm a cheap bastard, and he didn't offer me anything except a nice site layout, so I didn't even consider it. But many people did. And now we have something to talk about:
Now for Kottke, since he's just Jason Kottke, hipster, and resentment toward him stems not just from jealousy (he has money and lots of spare time, etc.) but from his apparent disregard for conventional definitions of 'full-time job' (and people hate being made suckers).
I mean: what now, for personal publishing online? Could someone else do this same thing, better? (Not without the funds to pay for heavy server traffic, etc., but let's leave that aside for a second.)
Jason got roughly 1,450 donations; his site readership is huge, largely by dint of his very early entry into the links-aggregating racket. The one thing power-law blather offers at this moment is reassurance that Kottke's example is essentially irrelevant to people looking to reproduce his experiment with their late, personal-publishing entries - the blogging world is different now than when he started, at least in part because he started. Kottke's function in the blogosphere has been replaced by sites like digg.com and MeFi - I suspect that's part of the reason he's leaving his blog aside, because it's boring him too, because he has no product and knows it.
Could a different kind of site pull this off?
I'd pay to read Christopher Hitchens's blog - but not if it meant no article/book-length writing from him. I wouldn't pay for Andrew Sullivan's site, and never in a million years would I pay for something like DailyKos or Atrios or any other liberal discussion site rhyming with 'Manos'. I wouldn't pay for Pandagon. I read Daring Fireball every day (every Mac enthusiast should) but wouldn't pay for it. I'd pay for something truly original - more than just brief news commentaries - if I were getting a hell of a lot of original content. (I don't think I'd pay for the New Yorker, but that's separate.) Then again, the commenter community at Pandagon would likely make it quite a reasonable pursuit for Amanda et al. if they asked for the funds. But that confounds me a bit - because the Pandagon crowd aren't really writers, they're ringleaders of a chorus, heads of a community. Pam Spaulding's posts in particular are guilty of this (though let's not bother going there right now).
(And incidentally, that's changed; Mouse Words was better than Amanda's writing at Pandagon, near as I can tell.)
I don't think many people other than Kottke could do what he's spent the year doing, at this point, because to even start like that you have to have a huge readership - and you get that either by targeting your content (e.g. Matt Haughey's PVRblog) or by growing your site steadily over a long, long, long time (Kottke). Someone like me - with no gimmick, no design, no single signature voice, and no pet subject, just (hopefully) reasonable writing - could not do this. I could give you a version of kottke.org light years more impressive than his, from every nontechnical standpoint, given the time to actually do so - and I'm talking about sticking to the same shit he writes about, at the same length, in the same style if you wanted. No question. But I can not market using the following slogan: I am Jason Kottke, well-known blogger, part of the A-list. And nothing I do will every change that. The vectors from 'long tail' to A-list are not available to omnivores and enthusiasts.
Was he brave to quit his job? No. (I mean seriously, look at his site statistics. If every regular reader gave a dollar a month he'd be doing quite well. And I'm guessing he's got, um, savings.) Just hubristic. Which is admirable in a way, I suppose. Kottke's innovation - in blog terms, because this happens all the time in other media - was to trade on his name, and charge his audience for the privilege of being his audience. He doesn't make things; informationally speaking, 90% of the time he's a reseller. And yes the money was voluntary and yes he did say 'micropayments' ('begging bowl' sounded bad, 'tip jar' is declassé), but when he talks about the 'long hours' and working weekends he put in at first while doing his site 'full-time', you've got to ask: to what end? How the fuck did this man fill even 40 hours a week? Reading up on fashion? His job was basically to be Jason Kottke and we now know, definitively, that that's not particularly interesting.
I'm going to quote what I wrote only a paragraph and a half ago:
The vectors from 'long tail' to A-list are not available to omnivores and enthusiasts.
The web is not a medium for writers. The web is a medium for an entirely different kind of purveyor of information. It's made for reusing prose, not creating it. And someone's got to make it in the first place, but by and large people aren't willing to pay creators directly in that way, or in any case not as willing as they are to fork over money to companies who do nominal 'quality-control'. Kottke.org was nothing more than quality-control for funny tech-culture articles online.
Most popular bloggers are like record labels for memes.
They lend their names and some fraction of their time to an endless recirculation of information, but very little of their creative energy. A lot of ideas pass through them, but little issues from them. (I consider Andrew Sullivan an exception to this; he remains, on some issues, iconoclastic and creative still. On the other hand, that's not why Time is hosting his weblog.) I mean, look at this list: Instapundit, Atrios, Kos, MetaFilter, BoingBoing, Michelle Malkin, Gawker, Kottke, Fark, Wonkette (indeed the whole Nick Denton fetish club). Name a powerful original idea that's come from any of these people. Kos might be the most effective one, but he's an activist organizer and ringleader; no I don't count Malkin's 'internment is good' book as a powerful original idea. (Cory Doctorow is a special case: his blogging is largely an invitation to waste time looking at Atari 2600-era nostalgic bullshit, but his sci-fi novels are allegedly worthwhile.) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a big slice of the A-list. Should we go on? Anil Dash (sensible but essentially a well-placed hipster evangelist, by the looks of it). Pandagon. Terry Teachout.** Scoble. (Jesus Christ - he's 'A-list' now? Give me a break.) Powerline. Joel Spolsky. Jeff Jarvis. Bookslut. Is there a truly original critical temperament in there, a genuinely novel approach to anything? The myth of 'meritocratic' or 'democratic' media is a weird one, because it's nice, pleasant, and almost true. True for a neighboring field but not in the area of critical writing. Few to none of those A-list bloggers have strong identities that emerge from their ideas and writing - only from their attitudes to the writing of others. (Again: with a couple of exceptions. Doctorow's copyleft stuff is of interest, though to be taken with an enormous grain of salt, since a lot of his writing is half-baked and unreflective, to my eyes. In among his 'irritable mental gestures seeking to resemble ideas' you can however find plenty of stuff worth getting amped up about.)
I too easily forget that we're living in a rough age for the written word and critical reflection: the era of Good Enough. Good enough for online anyhow.
Or as Kottke exemplifies: the triumph of design over content, chapter one and a half million.
** Teachout's writing is supported by his work at the WSJ and Commentary and whatnot, but it's quite good. He does stand apart for the holistic quality of his writing about art. You can disagree with him on substance - and I do, I do, and I hope you do too!